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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Comment l’affaire des caricatures interpelle les ONG

by Dr Pierre Micheletti

Role of NGOs Called into Question by the Danish Cartoons Affair

Translated by Ann Drummond

Translated Thursday 16 March 2006, by Ann Drummond

The recent dispute over the Danish cartoons highlighted the problems facing humanitarian organizations, whose effectiveness in aiding people in need depends increasingly on their ability to remain impartial in conflict zones.

At the beginning of February, the dispute arose throughout Europe over the publication in Denmark of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. On 12 February, under some pressure, Scandinavian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) reduced their personnel on the ground and drew up plans for evacuating staff in Darfur, a region of the Sudan thousands of miles away.

In this case, the religious factor seems to have been a powerful driver for a so-called "butterfly effect", which manifested itself in the following way: drawings published in a European newspaper produced a cumulative wing-beating effect which built up into a crisis of international proportions and serious unrest, dividing the political classes and, pretty much spontaneously, creating tensions within the world’s Muslim community. Once more, these events show just how difficult humanitarian organizations find it today to keep themselves out of the major divisions of international politics and to steer clear of being instrumentalized in all sorts of ways.

The operating margins are very narrow indeed if NGO interventions are not to be permanently affected by developments which end up blurring the specific position they aspire to in their international solidarity work in conflict zones.

Since the end of the Cold War, religious barriers and tribal antagonisms have supplanted geographical borders. In some cases, the breakdown of structures has left in its wake a myriad of separate communities which can sometimes be violently opposed to each other. The presence of "foreigners" can become blurred with these very real situations and become symbolic of the dividing lines between all sorts of ideological groups.

In Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and Pakistan, these are particularly
sensitive questions nowadays for those involved in humanitarian work. For different reasons, these countries have become places where tensions between the West and the Arab-Muslim world find expression. They are now symbolic places for what some call the clash between the conquering West (crusaders) and international jihadism, itself party to a war on all sides against the "kuffar" (infidels).

The "Without Borders" humanitarian movement, which developed as a result of the Red Cross position in relation to seeking "evidence", was nonetheless built on values of a very fundamental kind, designed to protect it from these polarised interpretations - apolitical in nature, free from any religious connotations, and with a duty to provide solidarity and assistance directly to deprived peoples.

Today, NGOs find themselves faced with the need to reaffirm some basic principles, especially their citizen dimension, as well as taking an unequivocal position with regard to the armed forces and foreign policy of the countries from which these organizations originate.

In addition, this role will be achieved through greater financial independence by favouring private funding. Funding from government and intergovernmental bodies is not in fact seen as politically neutral by armed groups on the ground, especially when it comes from countries actively engaged in conflicts.

In terms of what they say, humanitarian organizations are faced with the fine balance between the provision of "care", which favours effective, practical aid and the provision of "evidence", which gives a public account of facts about health, identifies the aggressor and denounces processes whereby violence is perpetrated against civilians. These acts of giving evidence can end in them being expelled from the country or in acts of violence against the teams and their local partners. Every instance of media communication is therefore weighed up carefully to estimate the consequences of speaking out in terms of cost/benefit for the beneficiaries in the population and the safety of the teams. The stance taken in one country can have serious consequences for a team working in another. Beyond these precautions, running operations at a distance can become the only feasible and effective option to support local populations.

In areas of conflict, a sudden deterioration in safety conditions can result in humanitarian workers leaving the area and contributing aid which is then implemented through partners and networks of local agents who have already been lined up.

We are witnessing a strong increase in this method of remote intervention. For it is difficult to admit that the physical departure of humanitarian workers should have as its corollary a reduction in support for the local population, who are often taken hostage and are now the first victims in every conflict.

The ability of the humanitarian movement to by-pass the question of religious division in its most extreme form of expression is, to an extent, a precondition for our effectiveness in bringing relief to the people and helping to overcome their isolation. In the final analysis, it is also a precondition for the ability of civil society to present an alternative to the political and economic rationale of states as well as to extremisms of every kind.

By Dr Pierre Micheletti, Assistant Treasurer of Médecins du Monde.


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